For 32 years, area residents have had an unusual pipeline to their state representatives, but may not even have known it.
The 60th District Service Office, located at 315 N. Burdick St., provides a way for the citizens of Michigan’s 60th State House District to interact directly with their elected officials on a nonpartisan basis.
Founded in 1973 by then-State Rep. Howard Wolpe, the 60th DSO is a nonprofit endeavor with a mission of connecting the constituents of the state’s 60th District with the services that they need. That core mission has remained the same since its inception, according to Mary Brown, who served as the 60th District representative for 18 years, from 1976 to 1994.
The 60th District includes Kalamazoo and a small portion of Portage, and the District Service Office is a “go-to place for individuals seeking to connect with state services,” Brown says.
In-district service offices are rare in Michigan. Each state representative gets two legislative assistants paid for by the Legislature, and most choose to keep both in Lansing. But State Rep. Jon Hoadley, who currently represents the 60th District, has opted, like his predecessors, to keep one assistant in Lansing and assign the other to the service office in Kalamazoo.
The 60th DSO is the only one of its kind in Southwest Michigan. “The concept of a nonpartisan, nonpolitical office that you can go to and access your government services right where you live, that’s a concept that a lot of places don’t have,” Hoadley says.
Hoadley holds office hours at the DSO every Monday afternoon, but the office’s day-to-day affairs are managed by Edie Trent, Hoadley’s legislative assistant in Kalamazoo. Since joining the DSO in 2012 (when Sean McCann represented the district), Trent has helped individuals qualify for food stamps, negotiated with Consumers Energy to provide relief to customers struggling to pay their utility bills and helped constituents research proposed legislation. Businesses often come to the DSO for help in complying with state regulations.
A poignant example of Trent’s determination to help people occurred in the summer of 2013, when a disabled Vine neighborhood woman came to the District Service Office to report that her house was infested with bedbugs. The woman, whose immune system was compromised, could not tolerate the standard chemical treatment for the pests and could not afford the more expensive heat treatment. Since there are no governmental programs designed to help low-income individuals pay for pest extermination services, Trent’s task seemed hopeless. But she was able to work with Rose Pest Solutions to provide a reduced-price extermination service for the woman’s house.
Compared to other nonprofits, the 60th District Service Office is small. It relies on donations from individuals for its annual operating budget of about $15,000 (which does not include salaries). But size doesn’t limit its ability to forge connections with governmental agencies and charities.
“My job is to know where to direct people,” Trent says. “If we can’t provide the direct services they need, then we refer them to where they need to go.”
The number of individuals turning to the DSO for help spiked during the Great Recession, Trent says. Although Michigan’s unemployment rate has since crept down, Trent’s workload has not lightened.
“Increasingly, we are getting people who have never had to ask for help before,” she says. “Most of the time they are employed, but they are barely able to stay afloat.”
Trent says the struggles that many people have connecting with their elected officials highlight the value of having an in-district service office.
“They (most state representatives) expect that you are going to call in to the office in Lansing,” Trent says. “And for a lot of people who are dealing with complex issues, you can’t deal with it with just a phone call to someone in Lansing. You’ve got to be able to show them the documents, sit down with them and talk to them about what they need.”
For Trent, the greatest benefit of working at the DSO is giving back to her community.
“It’s rewarding when someone calls me back up and says, ‘Thank you for helping me.’ For me, that is the biggest reward for working at the DSO.”
The 60th District Service Office is at 315 N. Burdick St., Suite 100, and is open on a walk-in basis from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Friday. Residents may also contact the office by calling 382-4676 or visiting its website at www.60thdso.org.